Tuesday, December 18, 2007

114. Music of the Great Tradition -- 15:Gamelan

As we have seen, the more elaborate gamelans are organized in terms of layers, in a manner roughly analogous to the stratigraphic layers so important to both geologists and archaeologists. Close to the "surface," we find the rebab, a bowed string instrument strongly associated with Muslim culture. Digging a bit deeper, we find drums, played in a style strongly resembling that of Indian classical music, based in Hindu traditions. Deeper still, perhaps, is the Gambang, a xylophone, suggesting African influence, most likely via some ancient slave trade between Africa and India. The presence of bronze instruments, of a type similar to those found in China and Southeast Asia, suggests the presence of a "Chinese" stratum, either direct or indirect.

Since we cannot, like geologists, examine these layers directly, our musical "stratigraphy" must necessarily proceed by inference, based on whatever documentation we have regarding the history and provenance of certain instruments and practices. Historical documentation fails us, however, when we try to account for the two most interesting and mysterious gamelan "strata," that of the so-called "elaborating" and "colotomic" instruments. In my view, certain aspects of both practices might well belong to the deepest and therefore oldest stratum, forging what is arguably the strongest and most convincing link of all between the Gamelan and the "Great Tradition."

Let's focus our attention first on an especially interesting feature of the elaborating layer: hocketed interlock, known in Bali as kotekan and in Java as imbalan. An excellent description of kotekan is provided in Michael Tenzer's essay, Theory and Analysis of Melody in Balinese Gamelan, published in the Internet journal, Music Theory Online. (See especially paragraphs 2.2, 3.8 through 3.10, and 4.6 through 4.12.) Tenzer's Example 2, below, provides us with an excellent picture of how one type of kotekan interlock works:

Both kotekan parts are in the topmost staff, one part represented with stems upward, the other with stems downward. The lower staff contains the "nuclear melody," or basic theme. In Tenzer's Sound File 2 we hear the entire melody played through first without the kotekan part, and then repeated, this time with it. As this moves quite rapidly, it might not be that easy to follow, but it's a good example of how kotekan sounds in context. Some other examples of Kotekan, taken out of context, can be found on this web page, along with easily heard MIDI-based audio clips.

For comparison, let's listen to an example of something that sounds quite similar, at least to me, as performed by a group of Ju'hoansi Bushmen, from the village of Dobe (from the CD, "Mongongo"). I've managed to produce a simplified, probably somewhat inaccurate, partial transcription, showing how two of the more prominent voices might be relating to one another, as they repeat the same pattern over and over again, with variations:
Since it's almost impossible to sort out all the details in this type of recording, my breakdown of the two parts might well be inaccurate, but it should give you an idea of how such parts can interlock with one another, to produce a hocketing effect quite similar to certain types of kotekan.

Here are two more audio clips from Africa exemplifying, for me at least, very similar types of hocketed interlock: Mbuti Pygmies, with "Luma" pipes and drums (from "On The Edge of the Ituri Forest," recorded by Hugh Tracey); an Ouldeme Pipe ensemble, from the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon. In both cases, each pipe plays only one note.

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